I woke up with a sneeze.
I’d managed to shove my face up against the bamboo wall, and there were dusty grass bits poking into my nostrils. I sat up, blew my nose, then wiped a bit of drool from my cheek, grateful that my mom wasn’t back yet, so at least my ridiculous sleeping pose had stayed private.
Spotting the note on the bedside table, I realised my mistake.
I must have been deep, deep asleep. She must have come in, showered, changed, and gone out again, scribbling a new bit on the bottom of our serial note to say I should join everyone for lunch at the restaurant at the other end of the beach when I woke up, since I looked much too cute to wake.
Grimace. My mother was exactly the kind of person to have invited Rachel in to see how ‘cute’ I looked sleeping. Please, no.
Next to the note was the teapot, just where I’d left it before I dozed off.
Call me crazy, but I’d always believed in destiny. Some things are meant to be, and you can’t avoid them, yeah? So here’s the thing: I’d never, not ever, heard of anyone seeing a hippo on the beach. It’s a one-in-a-gazillion kind of thing. And if I hadn’t seen the hippo, I wouldn’t have looked at the curios. If I hadn’t been hypnotised by the hippo carving, I wouldn’t have stayed long enough to feel obliged to buy. If I hadn’t felt I had to buy something, I wouldn’t have looked close enough to spot the teapot, or paid for it and brought it back. Which I had to do, to read this whack message. So, you could say, from a destiny point of view, perhaps this message was meant for me.
The question now was, what to do with it. Obviously there wasn’t anything I could do. My mom either. But her boss, Dean, he was a make-it-happen sort of guy. He’d know whether to call the cops, the newspapers, the underground local mafia, or what. He’d probably have all of the above on speed dial. The thing is, his daughter, Rachel.
What would Rachel think about me bringing this dorky wooden tea pot to lunch, convinced it was some kind of mystery clue? What if it was all a joke, and the joke was on me? That name, Machel, I still couldn’t place. What if this ‘message’ was a line from a local hit song, or from a movie or something, and me being the kid who doesn’t get pocket money, the only one who doesn’t get to keep up to date with these things.
If it was for real, I had to do something to help the guy. And I could get to look like a hero.
But, knowing me, more likely I’d end up looking like a boy who pees his pants when he sees a pot bellied pig, thinking it’s a hippo.
And that was the other problem. I already had a very tall story to tell, that was going to be a stretch for everyone to swallow. My mom might believe me, she can usually tell when I’m lying. But the others might think I was making it up. Add in teapots with murder clues, and they’d all think I’d bought and smoked some of the ‘Mozambique Poison’ the guy at the market flogs to tourists, and been stoned cold this morning rather than simply asleep. That would be the last time they let me stay behind, I would have to go out on the boat, every time!
What would help, I decided, would be if I could get just a bit more information. Either find out for sure that it was a standard tourist inscription, meaning nothing. Or, be able to hand Dean the teapot and say, casually, ‘and the guy is kept prisoner in the jungle behind the village and they feed him nothing but coconut husks’, or something like that. Then I would look as cool as a guy could look. Brave, but sensible. Yeah.
But how could I get that kind of information, and stay safe at the same time?
I was back at the curio stall, plan clear, and proud of myself.
The only problem now, was my lack of Portuguese.
“I want to order a second one.” I held up the teapot.
The tattered stallholder peered at me, his head on one side, like he suspected I wanted a refund.
“Must talk to man who make it. You show me man.”
He looked at me and shrugged.
“Want to get another one. Same-same.”
His eyes lit up. “Ah. Nother won, man?”
I nodded, glad it was as easy as that, and that he didn’t seem cagey about it. Maybe there was nothing to hide.
He grinned, and bent down to his wares. “Man. Give you good price.” He hefted a carving of a man, apparently dancing, about as long as my forearm. The dark wood glared back at me.
I shook my head, feeling like a heel as his smile faded. I turned up the teapot and showed him the name on the base. “This man. Outjie Botha.” I made talking gestures with my hand, then pointed to myself and made my fingers walk back down to the teapot. “You take me Outjie Botha.”
Comprehension dawned in his eyes, and he nodded, even as his shoulders drooped, but not completely. At least if I wanted a refund, I was going to the source to get it.
He pointed behind him toward the jungle, and counted on his fingers. “One, two, three house,” he pointed to my shirt, touching to show me the colour.
“A blue house?” I asked.
He nodded, then bent down and patted one of the hippo carvings, “you see!”
I waited for more explanation but none came. Apparently that was as clear as it was going to get. I nodded and smiled my thanks, realising I didn’t have a coin to give him.
Of course I was already well into the jungle, past the first little shack and with a good sight of the second ‘house’ when I remembered about the landmines.
Mozambique is full, but full of landmines. Kids get blown up all the time, my mom says. You stick to the paths. Strictly.
And, when I say ‘jungle’, you must understand we were walking distance from the beach, the ground was sandy. There were pawpaw trees (or maybe they were banana, how would I know), and coconut palms (that, even I could identify), and scrubby bushes, and tufts of spiky grass, but not like a real, dense, rain-foresty jungle. You could walk anywhere without a machete. So I had just walked behind the curio stall in the direction the guy pointed. Without checking for a path.
When I stopped, and looked, I saw that the path was at least twenty steps to my left. I was not on it. Not even slightly.
My nerves were already raw from my morning of wildlife spotting, and now I had walked right into what could easily be a minefield.
I stood, and looked around for someone to help me. The stalls were almost out of sight behind the trees. Ahead and to either side, the jungle stretched, gently rustling in a light spring breeze. Nobody. Ahead, the second reed hut like the one we were staying it, though much smaller, but nobody outside, no sound from within. It was right beside the path, I noticed. Sensible.
I took a deep breath, wished for a guardian angel, and took a step to the left, putting my foot down as gently as possible. Like that would make a difference. But anyway.
I remembered that it’s when you lift your weight off again, that they explode. I held my breath and prayed, as I moved one more step. No explosion.
Ok, two down, maybe eighteen to go. If I stepped wider, maybe I could do it in less.
I took a careful, trembling giant step, felt my foot slosh into soft sand up to my ankle, pinwheeled my arms, keeled over to the side, and landed on my butt.
Great. If I kept making contact with every possible part of the ground, that would ensure that I hit any possible lurking landmines, if not with my elbows, then with my stupid chin.
I searched around for the teapot I’d dropped, then lifted myself up again, careful not to touch anywhere the sand wasn’t already disturbed. No more giant steps. And, avoid deep sand.
Ah, yes, now there was a plan. If I stepped only on the grassy bits, then maybe that would mean there was place under the surface for the roots. Landmines wouldn’t have space on top for plants. I hoped.
I took a careful step onto a tuft, then another. To my shame, I was sweating. I blamed the midday heat.
From the path, I heard giggles. Dragging my stare up from the ground in front of me I saw two scrawny little kids, heads together, giggling at me.
I blushed. I probably looked like a heron, wading, but a lot less graceful.
I also noticed that they were on the path, and staying there. Not running over to me to ask for sweets or small change like the kids always did at the market. So, perhaps I wasn’t such an idiot for taking this seriously.
I lowered my gaze and tried to ignore them. At least they couldn’t speak English, so this story would stay safe from all ears that mattered, I told myself.
I took another step, then another. The closer I got to the path, the safer I was, I guessed.
Just a few more steps. The kids had run away, I noticed. I prayed that didn’t mean they were expecting an explosion. I searched for another tuft of grass, then another.
I couldn’t take this anymore. If I was going to die, it might as well be now. I launched myself into two giant bounds, eyes tight shut, and landed in a heap on the well-travelled strip of sand that led on into the jungle.
For a few minutes, I rested. Now, too late, I realised: the obvious thing would have been to retrace my steps, stepping on my own footprints, and then go to the start of the path to head in again. Oy. Next time.
I stood, brushed the sand from my legs, ran a hand through my hair, and made my legs start walking, before I could change my mind.
I passed the hut, and already could make out a third one ahead, between the trees. It was built next to a ruined remnant of wall, once painted blue. That must be the place. The vendor had directed me casually, but I’d better go quietly, carefully, just in case. At least sand makes no sound, unlike leaves and twigs.
I could see the ‘door’ now: an open gap in the reed walls, facing me. In front of the door was a large woven mat. Just inside, in the dappled gloom, I could see a stool, and on it what looked like a chisel. Right place then. No sign, though, of any carved hippos.
I sensed something behind me and turned round. There on the path just a few paces back, was the hippo: the same hippo, the blood on its skin dried to brown.
My body moved on its own, streaking for the hut, as if a few dry reeds would be able to save me. I lunged for the door yelling “HELP!”
As my feet hit the mat, it gave way beneath me, and I tumbled down to a sudden THUD landing that knocked the wind from my back and left me curled up on the sand at the bottom.
The jungle was above me, too high to reach. The mat had landed crumpled beneath me, and was digging into my side. Without moving, I looked around. The walls were sheer and concrete, I saw, an old cellar or something, part of the ruin that the owner had used as a booby trap.
Whoever had Outjie Botha trapped, had also trapped me.
I sat up, and squeaked. A huge grey face glowered at me from the edge of the pit. On the one hand I was safe down here, on the other, if the weight of that thing collapsed the edge and it fell in here on top of me…
Perhaps it felt the same way, since it disappeared as suddenly as it had come.
A human face popped up right where the hippo’s had been.
I stared. A wrinkled white man with a scraggly grey beard peered down at me, not at all worried about being up there close to a hippo. Had I hallucinated the animal?
“And what have I caught now?” he said, South African accent thick and clear.
“Outjie Botha?” I asked, still slightly out of breath.
Was he mocking me? I sat up, straighter. “I’ve come to help you.” I pointed at the teapot that had fallen by my side.
The man giggled. “Come to help me. This little fish.”
Oh boy. I had been snared by a giggling maniac.
“I’m not on my own,” I said quickly, “My mom’s … employer, is organised. He’s got connections.”
Outjie’s eyes gleamed. “Is that a fact?”
“He’ll be able to help you. Get me out of here and I’ll introduce you.”
Outjie stared down at me and giggled again. Then his eyes narrowed and he peered at me as if I were some tasty snack on a platter on his table. “Oh, yes, little fish. You will help me. You will.”
I tried a smile. It felt forced.
“Throw the mat up, then,” he waved a hand to echo his words.
I hauled myself to my feet, noticing nothing felt broken. The sand at the bottom was deep enough to make it hard to balance, but had probably saved my ankles. The mat, woven from old scraps of cloth, had probably done some good, too.
It was big, and heavy thanks to it’s size, but on the second go I flung it up so that he could catch one end, while I held onto the other, so he could haul me out.
“Don’t be dof!” he said.
I blushed. Of course, I would be pretty heavy, and it was a long way up. I let go, and he tugged the mat up and out.
His head withdrew.
I waited for him to fetch and lower the necessary ladder.
While I waited, I wondered. Was the hippo still up there? Did he have a way to stay safe from it? And why all the giggling?
Rachel said smoking weed gives her the giggles. Please let him not be so goofed he fell asleep or forgot me. I needed to pee. I needed to get out of here, to somewhere more dignified.
When he returned, what he brought was fresh reeds to replace the ones I’d broken.
He was going to shut me in down here? That made zero sense.
“Hey! Your message says you want to get out of here, so you can testify!” I shouted.
“Just one way to get out of here. But with you now, I’ve got another, little brother.”
“Yes. I can help you get out of here.” I reasoned, praying he wasn’t too stoned to see sense.
“With your connections,” he giggled, still busy at the top of the hole.
When I heard him say it, I realised my mistake. Why did I have to put it that way?
“You’re taking me hostage.”
I watched in silent shock as he laid the last reed over the hole, and blocked out my light with the mat.
A muffled giggle told me he hadn’t yet left.
A corner of the mat lifted, but his silhouetted head mostly filled the space.
“Not hostage, little fish.” This time it only started as a giggle, then settled into a long, squeaky laugh, going on in the belly-aching way where you can’t help yourself and you even forget why you’re laughing since you’re so busy hoping you don’t wet yourself.
Eventually, he stopped. He said one more word before the mat dropped into place.
At first the word didn’t make sense. And when it did, I wished it didn’t.
The word was ‘sacrifice’.